The Accidental Actor: Meet Artist & Entertainer Kevin Christy
Kevin Christy, best known for his role as Lester Linden, the awkward archivist and inventor of the dildo camera on Showtime’s hit series Masters of Sex.
Christy is an accidental actor, reluctantly taking his first commercial roles at age 20 to cover art supplies while attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. His knack for guest starring on successful shows (Mad Men, Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy) has paid the bills for nearly two decades, allowing him to pick and choose his art gigs. The 39-year-old Angeleno paints portraits for The Atlantic, draws skateboard graphics for Toy Machine, and exhibits personal work in galleries nationwide.
Read on to discover how he balances a diverse career, his advice on landing dream jobs, and why it matters immensely where he buys t-shirts. Plus, don’t miss his thoughts on why good art, like a sexual romp, doesn’t need to be explained.
I’ve heard that a couple of teachers from Kids Art in Pasadena put you on the path to art school when you were 14. What did they do to influence and support you?
I was going to that class for a year or two, and initially one of the teachers, named Owen Smith, who’s an illustrator, and another teacher named Andrea Bolton asked me what I drew on at home. I said, “Nothing, really, I don’t have stuff like that at my house.” And so the next week both of them bought me one of those nice Strathmore leather-bound sketchbooks. They were like, “Take this. You’re gonna be an artist. This is the only thing you like doing and you’re good at it. So here, draw on this all the time.”
And I really didn’t understand what it meant to be an illustrator. I knew that comic book artist could be a job. But I didn’t understand what art school was at all. And so I asked them, “What’s a good art school?” And they said Pasadena Art Center is one of the best ones. And I thought, great, I’ll just go there. It was really close. I mean, I had heard of others, like I thought about trying to go to New York for art school, but the fact that that one was there, and I went and visited it, and to me, at the time, it was super mind blowing how good everything looked. They have a student gallery there, and everything looks incredibly sleek and finished and perfect. And the building’s this long, sleek, black rectangle, so I thought, I want to go to this place.
Poster for Marc Maron’s 2015 comedy tour
You’ve said on the podcast you co-host, Occasionally Awesome, that in your classes at Kids Art, you only wanted to replicate pop culture stuff at first, like Guns N’ Roses album covers and skate graphics. Why did those images resonate so strongly with you? Do they still inspire you?
And comic books. They do definitely still inspire me. I think the reason they resonated with me so much then is that they were line driven, so I could copy them. Whereas I didn’t understand how to paint, so I couldn’t really find a way in for how to replicate a painting. Graphics and comic books and stuff like that, since there were obvious lines, I could copy them. I think that’s what drew me to that stuff initially. Because I wanted to learn how to draw better, and that was stuff I could learn from.
Poster illustration by Kevin Christy, with art direction and design by Brett Kilroe and Tina Ibañez
It seems to me that, when it comes to your art career, you literally realized your childhood dreams. You fell in love with the imagery associated with skate culture and music, then grew up to create some of that art and collaborate with people you admire, like Ed Templeton of Toy Machine and Brett Kilroe, a renowned art director in the music industry. How did you do that?
Both of those collaborations came out of knowing those guys personally. I met Brett through my friend’s band Eve 6; he was their art director. When I was just out of high school, I went to one of their video shoots, and I said, “Oh, I want to be an artist, I’m going to go to art school.” And he was like, “That’s adorable.” The next time I saw him, I brought him my art school portfolio. Then when he went back to New York, he sent me a giant envelope filled with illustrator promos. Back then, all illustrators made postcards. Some of them taught at Art Center… and I thought they were crazy good. I didn’t work with Brett for a while. I wasn’t really good enough. We didn’t start working together until I was long out of art school, probably 25 or 27. The thing is, Brett realized I could do more than one thing, like different kinds of styles. So if he needed a type of illustration, he could just call me up and say, “Can you do this? I need this thing really fast.” I love so many different types of art and illustration that I can do many things. For his purposes, I was very useful. I was like a mini service bureau. Like an art department for him.
I met Ed through a friend of mine, an artist named Ashley Macomber. And Ed and his wife really loved Disneyland, and I loved Disneyland, and I was married at the time so we would go. I sort of lied and said, “Oh, I was going to do graphics for this skate company, but they folded.” Some random skate company had asked me to do graphics, and I think I ignored it. I said, “I’d do graphics for free.” And I think Ed was like, uh, free graphics! He was aware of my art, so he said, “Dude, you want to do stuff for Toy Machine?” That’s the closest thing I’ve ever done that felt like the exact realization of a childhood dream. I had them pay me in skate decks instead of money, which is pretty stupid. I drove down to the Toy Machine factory and got all these decks that I drew. As far as 12-year-old me goes, that was a perfect experience.
Flannery O’Connor illustration for The Atlantic
Do you have any advice for young designers and artists about turning fantasies into paying gigs?
It’s very important to be a part of the community that you want to work for, and to support those brands. For instance, there’s a store in L.A. called Giant Robot. Early on it was one of the only places that would sell zines and stuff. One of my Art Center professors said, “If you want Giant Robot to carry your zines, that’s where you should buy zines.” Because you want it to be a financially sustainable situation for them. Ten or 15 years ago I had a small publishing company with my friend. We made three books, and we realized that really the only people buying them were other artists, art directors, and designers. And so I think it’s important to support the things you’d like to be a part of. Initially a lot of the galleries I got into were places I’d bought art from. That’s how I met them, then they’d find out I was an artist from someone else and say, “Oh yeah, I know that person.” And we’d already had a little bit of an experience.
Buy t-shirts from your artist friends. Don’t go buy t-shirts from giant companies. Everyone that we know who can draw is making cool products. They’re about the same price. Buy that stuff. Support the industry you want to support you.
Breaking Bad illustration for The Atlantic
Your first agent lovingly bullied you into getting headshots and going to auditions while you were in art school, right? Why were you hesitant about acting?
I wasn’t necessarily resistant, but I was in art school, and anyone who hasn’t gone to art school doesn’t understand how much time it takes. You have tons and tons and tons of work to do, so as far as time I had to spare, I didn’t have any. The idea of driving around L.A. trying to go to auditions seemed too hard. I was a little hesitant at first, but I was also poor. So she kind of convinced me, and thank God. It made it much easier to pay for art school and pay off my debt.
I’ve also heard you say on the podcast that, growing up in L.A., there’s a stigma around being an actor. Were you also hesitant for that reason?
I was. Again, in the same way I didn’t understand that there were so many types of art professionals, I didn’t know what a character actor was. So, as a young person, I always knew that people thought I was funny and stuff. But I thought actors were people who were exceptionally good looking. I watched TV, but it didn’t register that they need nerds, and they need all kinds of people. Plus, I had a pretty succinct plan of what I was going to be. I was going to be an artist. … It was actually one of my teachers, Rob Clayton of the Clayton Brothers, who said, “Being a character actor is really similar to being an illustrator. Because you get known for a particular thing, people hire you for that thing, and if you get big enough, you’re allowed to change and develop a new thing.”
And also, there are so many people trying to be actors in Los Angeles that are incredibly bad. And crazy. They’re literally crazy people. There are people who want to be actors because they consider it a skill and they like the process and it’s satisfying to them. And there are lots and lots of people who want to be actors because you get famous, and with fame comes lots of other things that have nothing to do with being a working actor. And so that’s a huge, huge portion of the people involved. That’s the part that didn’t appeal to me. I wasn’t and am not particularly interested in the fame part of it. I like working a lot – it’s very fun. And the people you get to work with are fun. It’s a very satisfying process when it goes well.
It was actually one of my teachers, Rob Clayton of the Clayton Brothers, who said, “Being a character actor is really similar to being an illustrator. Because you get known for a particular thing, people hire you for that thing, and if you get big enough, you’re allowed to change and develop a new thing.”
Are there circumstances that would persuade you to prioritize acting over art? For example, would you want a lead role in a big-budget film?
Yeah, totally. But the nice thing is, even when you’re an actor who’s working a lot, there’s still so much downtime. I’ve had very few moments where I’ve had to put one behind the other. It just hasn’t ever happened. … There are days when I’ve gotten less sleep, because I’ve been on set all day and I have [an illustration] to finish, or I have a show coming up, and they just get kind of close to each other as far as time line. But I’ve never had to really pick. That’s why lots and lots of actors do more than one thing, because even at a lead role level you have time, which is nice.
You say you don’t consider yourself famous yet. If you become well known for something, what should it be?
Being talented [laughs]. That’s it. At this point, that’s it. I don’t care to pick. To me, that’s a lot about other people and their reaction. And I realize I have only sort of control over that. I kind of put the same amount of effort into everything I do, and then it just goes out into the universe, and that’s it. … The only part I can really wrap my brain around is trying to do them all in a way that I enjoy, and that’s sustainable to keep doing them financially.
I know that a lot of artistic people do multiple things. But I do think it’s unusual that you’re able to put your creative energy into multiple channels and have success in each. Most people who spread out their energy end up being underachievers. How do you balance the art, acting, and comedy?
In a weird way, they actually [fall] where you would sort of cordon off your day. Stand-up comedy happens late at night. Acting happens early in the morning, for the most part. And art I can put anywhere since I work from home. So there’s always space for all of them. It takes a little mental discipline for me to make sure I’m doing enough of each. But I can just tell. When I’m sick of my jokes, that means I need to write more jokes. Acting-wise is different. A lot of that schedule is not under my control. My agents and managers determine when I go most places. … And then I just take the art and comedy and put it in the gaps.
Do you have any rituals to stay connected with art when you’re busy with filming or other things?
I think I probably use Instagram as a way to stay connected with art stuff. Routinely on a television show, you work 12 hours a day or more. So some days, if you’ve been up since 5 a.m., the idea of going home and drawing for five hours isn’t really realistic. But I look at stuff all the time. Most of what I follow on the internet is art-based, so I’m always just seeing tons and tons and tons of things that get me fired up to make stuff. If I don’t make some kind of art on a regular basis, I get noticeably depressed and hard to be around. The art thing is the base level of who I am. It’s the first thing I ever noticed I was good at. The art thing I can depend on more than the other things because the other things are so dependent on audience. I need a room full of people to do stand-up, and I need productions to hire me to work as an actor. Whereas I can just sit in my house and make stuff all the time. I’ve told this to my therapist: the foundation of my self-esteem is being able to draw.
The thing about art, or the stuff I make, it’s different than a joke. A joke has a punch line. You don’t leave jokes ambiguous, then no one laughs at them. But the great thing about making art is that it doesn’t have to have an answer.
I’ve noticed that you resist explaining your art. When you post work on social media, for example, you don’t write anything. And you often don’t respond to people’s comments and questions.
It routinely depends on the question. I do have a lot of followers because of being a comedian. So a lot of the time, the questions will be people trying to be funny. Which is fine, but I’m not super interested in having that interchange based on a drawing I did. I do tend to delete comments. You get a lot of, “That looks like a dick.” There’s plenty of that. Or if I draw anything vaguely sexual, I get lots of silly comments. I don’t want that stuff as the underheading of the stuff I draw.
The thing about art, or the stuff I make, it’s different than a joke. A joke has a punch line. You don’t leave jokes ambiguous, then no one laughs at them. But the great thing about making art is that it doesn’t have to have an answer. In fact, if you make something that simple, no one looks at it for more than 30 seconds. One-liner art I don’t find interesting. It’s interesting to me to look at something for a long time and actually kind of draw your own conclusion or make up your own story line about why you like it.
Routinely when people say, “I think this means this, this, and this,” they’re not right, but it means that to them. So that’s as right as what it meant to me. Because it’s all just imagery, and imagery triggers responses in people’s brains in different ways. So in a weird way, titles or explaining what I’m doing is a little presumptuous. It’s not like I’m using objects and imagery that I invented. I maybe invented the combination of them, but as imagery, they exist in people’s brains in a million different ways. So they can create their own thing just by looking at it, and that’s what I kind of want. … The psychological-emotional tuning fork that happens when you stand in front of something that gets to you—even talking about it seems silly. Just have it happen, just feel it. You don’t need to have a long postgame commentary about why it was so great. It would be like if you had sex with someone and then talked about the reasons it was so great for 20 minutes. It would be a bummer.
Norman Rockwell illustration for the Atlantic
With so many online publications needing content, and so many artists willing to work cheaply or for free, do you think professional artists are an endangered species?
I think mediocre ones are. … Art, especially commercial art, has gotten too cheap. It drives me crazy. To me, absolutely insane, I see very talented artists giving their art away for nothing. There’s an artist I follow on Instagram; I love his work. He’ll sell little originals for very little money. We don’t know each other personally, so I can’t call him up and be like, dude, knock it off. People always say, “Well, I can do it really fast.” Yeah, say I can knock out a cool drawing in an hour. But it took me an hour and 25 years of practice. So you’re not paying an hourly rate. Doctors don’t get paid that way. A doctor examines you for 30 minutes, but you don’t pay him for a cheap half-hour. They went to med school, and they have debt. It drives me nuts when I see people online doing these flash sales, where they’re like, “For the next 4 hours, I’m selling original drawings for $50.” And you’re like, please stop it. Those are worth way more than $50; you’re taking the uniqueness out of them. And the fact that they’re special and different and not everybody can do that. It also removes the stakes. I was talking to an artist named Geoff McFetridge about this. And he was saying the fact that anyone can make any product now makes the stakes kind of low. It kind of doesn’t matter if it’s great or awful, because you can just make tons of them. When you have clients or you have a big show, the stakes are way higher, and it has to be rad or else it’s a failure.
I get asked to do things for free a lot. People say, “Hey, I have this comedy show” or “I have this band, can you do this stuff for free?” You know, I don’t do it because to me I’d rather make something for myself. Even putting something on Instagram is more sustainable to me psychologically than doing a job I didn’t want to do for almost no money.
Christy will compile his latest line drawings in a self-published book later this year.
Tell us about the ongoing series of ink drawings you’ve been sharing on social media.
Initially deciding to not work with any color, I wanted to start over, in a weird way. Start with just drawing and just value and just line work and see what that was like for a little while. And also, I knew in the near future I’d be doing some skateboard designs, so I wanted to be really good at ink, just brush and ink so I can use it however I want. A lot of [the images] I saw growing up. They were just around, living in California. Especially the Mammoth Mountain shirt—it was just a thing you saw all the time. To me it denotes just a certain type of person. … Not necessarily in a bad way or good way, but just a person with maybe a certain set of behaviors or hobbies or things they do. … I try to put lots of little things in my work that are symbols or triggers. … You know, you see someone wearing a Dead Kennedys shirt or a Mammoth Mountain shirt or a Schmitt Stix Lucero shirt, and you know something about them right away. I don’t know everything, but I have a small window into certain things they like. So I wanted to add a bit of specificity while staying ambiguous at the same time.
Christy uses familiar symbols and logos as emotional triggers in his personal work.
A lot of the people in the ink work drawings are maybe engaged in art. They’re looking at art or in the art world. I wanted to make those people specific style-wise or [portray] the background that got them to care about art. They’re all imagined scenarios, for the most part. They’re not based on scenarios I’ve seen, but I think they’re probable things that could happen, numerically. Added to that, I want a certain specificity about the kind of people that decide to go certain places and like certain things and do certain activities. Kind of the gateways that take you to doing other stuff in life. When I think about the things I liked that got me into doing the various disparate things I do, I didn’t see any of it coming. I didn’t see most of my life coming on any level, except for drawing stuff. But the way I got to do it, the things I’ve done it for, the places I’ve had my art show up, I had no sense of that at all. So it’s interesting to me the kind of activities that lead to other things. … I’m going to make a book out of [the drawings].
Want more Kevin Christy? Check out his online portfolio, listen to his Occasionally Awesome podcast, and watch his guest performance on Castle February 22.